Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall fear nor longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence for condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself! There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.
The first time I traveled to Guatemala I had no idea what to expect. Sure I had been on previous mission trips to different parts of the United States, but I had yet to serve the church in a truly different environment. Everywhere we traveled there was a sense of excitement in the air because everything was so remarkably fresh. The abundance of colors in the differing marketplaces, the worn and wrinkled faces of the elderly mayans carrying heavy loads, and the mountains scratching across the horizon.
I had been looking forward to the trip for sometime and when we finally arrived, everything was meeting my expectations. I believed that we were truly serving God’s kingdom by serving our Guatemalan neighbors by building stoves in the indigenous highland areas. I believed that we had something to share with them, not to convert them, but to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ and demonstrate the love of God in the world.
On one of the early days of the trip, our team arrived in the town of Chichicastenango, known for its traditional K’iche’ Mayan culture. It was a pit stop for us on the way to the higher regions, and we were there for lunch and to explore the vast and dense market. Everywhere you turned you were overwhelmed by the sense of time and tradition, as if this place had remained unchanged for the last few centuries. I wandered through the winding streets, peeked in some of the different booths, but really I was just trying to soak up the culture.
At some point, I became lost. I could not see anyone from my group and continued to travel aimlessly throughout the town. I tried to keep it together, not panic, and decided to find a high vantage point in order to get a bearing on my surroundings. I walked until the stones under my feet started to slant upwards and eventually found myself in front of a very old church. The stone steps were covered with Mayans, sitting and sprawling over every space, and I had to weave my way back and forth in order to reach the entrance of the church. Though I should have immediately turned around to look out at the town, something drew me inside.
The church was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. The ground felt alive under my feet as it gave way to my weight, the walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires, and the paintings and decorations had nearly all disappeared from view. The smell of melted wax filled my nostrils as I began to creep closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar. It was the least church-like church I had ever entered. Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooded seats until I finally found myself standing in the front of the church. There poised in front of me was perhaps one of the most pristine sculptures of Christ that I had ever seen. In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Christ was unblemished, beautiful, and brilliant. Jesus stood elegantly with his robes draped over his shoulders with one hand outstretched with a remarkable golden crown resting on his forehead: Christ the King.
The celebration of Christ the King Sunday is a relatively recent addition to the Christian calendar. The greater church had celebrated the knowledge and image of Christ as king for centuries, but Pope Pius IX officially added to the Christian year in 1925. It took the church 1900 years to need this feast so bad in order to add it to the life of worship. When the first celebration of Christ the King occurred, Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for three years, the maniacal man named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was growing in popularity, and the United States was preparing for the Great Depression. In such a time, when the world seemed out of control, the church asserted that, nevertheless, Jesus Christ is King of the universe.
This day, this celebration in the life of the church, became the church’s great nevertheless to the godlessness of the world. Despite the rise of dictators, wars, fear, and death, despite the widespread notion that religion was only a “private affair” for individuals, Christ the King asserted that Jesus Christ is the Lord, and he shall reign forever and ever.
On Christ the King Sunday the Lectionary provides for us scriptures that reflect the “kingliness” of Jesus. The Old Testament scripture from Jeremiah, contains a prophetic word about the coming Messiah: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” Jeremiah reports the Word of the Lord to a people in a time of chaos: there are people who are unworthily leading and scattering God’s sheep. But nevertheless, God will bring about a righteous Branch, a king to rule all things, a king of righteousness.
What do we want out of a king? Someone who will execute justice and righteousness? Someone who has our best interests at heart? Someone who lowers our taxes? Someone who will lead us victoriously into battle?
The Israelites wanted a king like David. They so desired someone to come in the name of the Lord in order to overthrow the powers that be, and take a seat on their appointed throne. To be crowned with glorious gems and rubies, to bring about God’s kingdom on earth with power. What kind of a king do we want?
And he was led away to the place called The Skull with two others, who were criminals. There Jesus was crucified with the criminals, one on his right, the other on his left. With the blood still wet on his hands and feet, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” those who had gathered to witness his death began to cast lots for his clothing, and people stood by watching, waiting. The leaders began to mock him, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers present also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And there was a sign hung over his head that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals hung next to Christ kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself AND us!” But the other criminal rebuked him, saying “Are you not afraid of God, since you are under the same punishment? And we were condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he looked to the Christ, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
That is our King.
When you really get down to it, when you hear Luke’s remembrance of the crucifixion, it is so simple and straightforward. This is in contrast with the flood of feeling-filled poetry, hymns, sermons, and images that have flowed ever since. Our King did not reign in glory according to the expectations of the world. Instead of a long flowing purple robe he was left nearly naked on the cross. Instead of a crown of rubies, diamonds, and gems, he wore a crown of thorns. Instead of a majestic throne inlaid with gold and comfort, Christ reigned from a cross.
The Romans were notorious for using crucifixion as a form of execution for common criminals because it not only warned the public about the crimes against Rome, but it also added shame, pain, and a slow death. Yet somehow, instead of being hung for shame, Jesus Christ was elevated to his throne on the cross.
In that simple moment of hanging for all to see, Christ the King reigned magnificently over God’s kingdom and demonstrated the depth of what it means to be our King. Jesus refused to test God and heed the call of his tormentors to save himself. Three separate times Jesus was mocked to “save himself,” with the one criminal adding, “and us.” In his final moments Jesus does save someone, and that the one he saved was a dying criminal fits perfectly with the greater message of God’s Good News of the world. In Jesus’ dying hour, he continued his ministry: For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost. That is what it means to be King.
As I stood in that Guatemalan church, I was confronted for the very first time about what it really means to believe that Christ is the King. I was surrounded by decay, desolation, and disregard yet Christ stood before me as the King. In that moment I saw the paradox of the crucifixion, that the King of God’s glory was hung on a cross to die, that Christians in Guatemala can see the world slipping away from them, yet Christ is still King of the universe. I thought I was bringing something with me to Guatemala, that I was carrying God’s message. I believed I was looking for and seeking out God in my own life when God was the one looking for me; waiting to confront me in that dark and empty church.
How remarkable is it that we worship a God who loves us so much that he is continually looking for us, finding us in the differing moments of our lives to remind us who is really in charge? How beautiful is it that our God came in the form of flesh, to be the incarnate Word, and reign from a cross at the place called The Skull? How perfect is it that our King does not meet the expectations of the world, but instead turns the world upside down? How blessed are we that our King reigns not above us, but for us, beside us, and with us?
Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year, we have come to the conclusion of our liturgical calendar. We began with Christ’s birth made our way through his life death and resurrection. We have remembered the stories of the Old Testament where God made covenant with his people to be their God. We have witnessed the tragedies that have occurred in the world, we have lost loved ones, and suffered in our own lives.
Yet, nevertheless, Jesus Christ is King of all things.
Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, brought forth a new age in the life of humanity, ushered in a new kingdom by water and the Spirit, reigned triumphantly from the most unexpected of places. Jesus Christ, Son of Man, came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus Christ, Son of God, died on a cross for the world so that we might all be reunited and reconciled with God. Jesus Christ, the Holy One, taught us about how to live and love abundantly in God’s Kingdom. Jesus Christ, King of the universe, was resurrected from the grave to share life eternal with us.
Hallelujah! To God be the Glory forever and ever!